Tide turns in favour of drug reform
One hundred years ago, the US convened the International Opium Conference. This meeting of 13 nations in Shanghai was the beginning of global drug prohibition.
Prohibition slowly became one of the most universally applied policies in the world. But a century on, international support for this blanket drug policy is slowly but inexorably unravelling.
In January, Barack Obama became the third US president in a row to admit to consumption of cannabis. Bill Clinton had admitted using cannabis but denied ever inhaling it. George Bush was taped saying in private he would never admit in public to having used cannabis. When Obama was asked whether he had inhaled cannabis, he said: ”Of course. That was the whole point.”
Obama has candidly discussed his drug use. ”Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow [cocaine] when you could afford it.” He has also admitted the ”war on drugs is an utter failure” and called for more focus on a public health approach.
In February, a Latin American drug policy commission similarly concluded that the ”drug war is a failure”. It recommended breaking the ”taboo on open debate including about cannabis decriminalisation”. The same month, an American diplomat said the US supported needle-exchange programs to help reduce the transmission of HIV and other blood-borne diseases, and supported using medication to treat those addicted to opiates.
In March, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs met in Vienna as the culmination of a 10-year review of global drug policy. A ”political declaration” was issued which, at the urging of the US, excluded the phrase ”harm reduction”. This omission caused a split in the fragile international consensus on drug policy and resulted in 26 countries, including Australia, demanding explicit support for harm reduction in a footnote.
In April, Michel Kazatchkine, of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, argued in favour of decriminalising illicit drugs to allow efforts to halt the spread of HIV to succeed. The same month, a national Zogby poll in the US provided evidence of changing opinion on the legalisation of cannabis: 52 per cent supported cannabis becoming legal, taxed and regulated.
In May there was movement on several fronts. The Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, said: ”I think it’s not time for [legalisation], but I think it’s time for a debate.” He was supported by a number of other American politicians, while Vicente Fox, a former Mexican president, said he was not yet convinced it was the solution but asked: ”Why not discuss it?” The Colombian Vice-President, Francisco Santos Calderon, is already convinced. ”The only way you can really solve the problem [is] if you legalise it totally.”
Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said he wanted to banish the idea of fighting a ”war on drugs”, while the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said criminal sanctions on same-sex sex, commercial sex and drug injections were barriers for HIV treatment services. ”Those behaviours should be decriminalised, and people addicted to drugs should receive health services for the treatment of their addiction,” he said.
In Germany, the federal parliament voted 63 per cent in favour to allow heroin prescription treatment.
In July, the Economic and Social Council, a UN body more senior than the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, approved a resolution requiring national governments to provide ”services for injecting drug users in all settings, including prisons” and harm reduction programs such as needle syringe programs and substitution treatment for heroin users. This month, Mexico removed criminal sanctions for possessing any illicit drug in small quantities while Argentina is making similar changes for cannabis.
Portugal, Spain and Italy had earlier dropped criminal sanctions for possessing small amounts of any illicit drug, while the Netherlands and Germany have achieved the same effect by changing policing policy.
It is now clear that support for a drug policy heavily reliant on law enforcement is dwindling in Western Europe, the US and South America, while support for harm reduction and drug law reform is growing. Sooner or later this debate will start again in Australia.